The Word of the Year for 2016 is surreal, with lookups of the word spiking for different reasons over the course of the year. Beginning with the Brussels terror attacks in March, major spikes included the days following the coup attempt in Turkey and the terrorist attack in Nice, with the largest spike in lookups for surreal following the U.S. election in November.
Surreal is looked up spontaneously in moments of both tragedy and surprise, whether or not it is used in speeches or articles. This year, other spikes corresponded to a variety of events, from Prince’s death to the Pulse shooting in Orlando; from the Brexit vote to commentary about the presidential debates.
Surreal was also used in its original sense, referring to incongruous or unrealistic artistic expression, in reviews for the movie "The Lobster."
The definition of surreal is: “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” It’s a relatively new word in English, only dating back to the 1930s, derived from descriptions of the artistic movement of the early 1900s known as surrealism.
It’s a word that is used to express a reaction to something shocking or surprising, a meaning which is built into its parts: the “real” of surreal is preceded by the French preposition sur, which means “over” or “above.” When we don’t believe or don’t want to believe what is real, we need a word for what seems “above” or “beyond” reality. Surreal is such a word.
For more information on how we chose this year's Word of the Year, go behind the scenes with editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski. And don't miss our in-depth look at surreal.